Communication challenges – Gender patterns in talking

Authors: Mary Ann Turney and Ruth L. Sitler


Several years ago, we met at an Aviation Conference and discovered that we had an interest in research about women in aviation. We were both teaching aviation in the university setting and had noticed some uniqueness about our women students. Among the thoughts that we shared at that conference were observations about the way women communicate differently from men.

What we say and how we say it


Talking, like walking, is something we do without stopping to question how we are doing it. When we say something, we usually feel we are just talking naturally, but what we say and how we say it are chosen from a great range of possibilities. Others react to our choices just as they react to the clothes we wear. Clothes provide signs of whether or not the occasion is formal or casual. Personalities like formal and casual, stuffy and scruffy, and attitudes like respect or lack of it are signaled by ways of talking. Everything that is said must be said in some way – in some tone of voice, at some rate of speed, and with some intonation and volume. We may consider what to say when speaking, but rarely do we consider how to say it unless the situation is very emotionally charged. Rarely do we consider how loudly to speak or how fast, yet others, according to Deborah Tannen, use these signals to interpret meanings and decide what they think of the communication.


Conversational style differences

People have different conversational styles says Deborah Tannen. They are influenced by regions where they grew up, ethnicity, age, class, and gender. But conversational style is invisible and we can be unaware that these and other aspects of our backgrounds influence our ways of talking. So, we think we are simply saying what we mean. Because we don’t realize that others’ styles are different, we are often frustrated in conversations. Thus we attribute communication problems to others’ intentions, thinking they don’t like us or they are stupid, rude, dominating, etc.

Gender patterns in talking

When looking at gender patterns in talking, we need to remember that people view their ways of talking as a natural behavior. So our speech patterns are basically automatic. Women and men as a group talk in particular ways. The fact that individuals do not fit the pattern doesn’t make the pattern not typical.


Characteristics of women’s talking


Research tells us that communication styles of men and women differ dramatically. Women’s language tends to be more indirect and subtle than men’s language. Pitch and intonation differences often reveal the sex of the speaker. Culture, as well as biology, is an important factor in determining voice use. Women tend to tag declarative answers by adding yes/no rising intonations that make statements sound like questions. Women use hyper-polite forms that may involve more word usage. Women include modifiers and query tags, often avoiding definitive statements. Metaphor and superlatives, such as “Nothing is working” characterize women’s language, and men mistakenly take these expressions literally since male language is more absolute and female language more abstract.

The average woman’s voice is higher in pitch than the average male’s voice since males have longer, thicker vocal folds. However, some vocal differences are socially determined. Women adjust their voices to sound the way they perceive women should sound and men adjust to sound like men should sound. Both men and women try to match some unspecified social standard for each gender. Women use a wider range of pitches than men in all speaking situations, while men tend to keep their voices subdued and monotonous when talking to adults, but use more vocal variation when talking to young children. Despite the ability of both genders to use vocal variation, men are much more selective about when they vary their voices and female language contains greater imagery. Women use intensifiers (e.g., so, such, quite, very, etc.), modifiers, tag questions (eg., isn’t it?), and mild expletives. There is a general notion of uncertainty or hesitancy in female speech. Male language is more absolute; female language is more abstract.

Social Influences


Hulit and Howard (1993) state “It is highly likely that many of the gender differences we observe in language are socialized differences and are not biologically based.” Perceptions of gender roles are reflected in the language that individuals choose and perceptions are also shaped by language. Women are taught to be non assertive, uncertain, polite, and proper in their use of language. They are placed in a “damned if they do and damned if they don’t position because of gender-marked linguistic expectations. If they comply with social expectations by speaking softly and hesitantly, they are seen as trivial and behaving “just like a woman” and if they don’t comply, women are seen as aggressive or masculine.

Research indicates that men talk more than women and that men are more likely to interrupt during conversations than women. Tannen’s extensive work on gender and communication suggests that men use speech to establish status and a hierarchy of superiority. They are more comfortable giving information and advice than accepting advice or information. Women are equally comfortable accepting information as they are giving it. Women are less comfortable in the role of information conveyer. Men talk to inform; women talk to connect. Case suggests that male communication tends to be more assertive and direct, making the speaker sound self-confident. Since men and women don’t have the same reaction or rules for talk, they can misread each other’s motives and meanings.

Women are more inclined to negotiate in their communication style in contrast to men’s tendency to be matter-of-fact. Men speak to both exchange information and establish status in a group, and women talk to exchange information and establish cohesion.

Evaluations of male and female speech resulted in raters evaluating samples of the speech of men and women differently as evidenced from ratings of transcribed conversations. Male speakers were rated as more dynamic than females. Zahn claims that some of the difference in ratings is a result of sex role stereotypes. The tendency in the stereotypes is to view men as forceful, active and dominating, and to view women as tactful, sensitive and submissive.


Women say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” more easily than men do. Sometimes evaluators interpret these expressions of uncertainty as lack of knowledge base when, in fact, they are frequently utterances that indicate knowledge that is partial or incomplete. In addition, women take time to think over a problem and my respond to a query more slowly and less automatically. Women do not want to give answers unless they are absolutely sure.


Communication challenges

Tannen’s research among women physicians highlights gender-related communication problems. Some doctors reported that nurses wouldn’t do for women doctors what they do for men; other women physicians reported that nurses were their best allies. One surgeon offered an explanation. She said she first modeled her behavior on male surgeons. The operating room functioned like the military with the surgeon barking orders. She found that it didn’t work for her. Rather, by allying herself with nurses and respecting them as professional colleagues, they became her best allies. Tannen concludes that men can be authoritarian without loss of service, but women cannot operate in the same way.



Studies on gender difference indicate that minimal responses such as nods, “yes” and “mm hum” are common features of conversation. These responses often lead to male-female miscommunication. For women, a minimal response of this type means simply that she is listening not necessarily that she agrees with the speaker. For men, it has a stronger meaning such as “I agree with you.” Imagine a woman speakers who receives only occasional nods from a man; she thinks he isn’t listening. This example explains two common complaints about male-female communication (1) women who get upset with men who never seem to listen and (2) men who think that a woman is always agreeing and then conclude, when they find the woman doesn’t agree, that it’s impossible to tell what a woman really thinks.

Non-verbal communication


Non-verbal communication can cause misinterpretation. Hesitancy, for example, can be interpreted as a sign of weakness and indecision when in reality it may be a sign of thought and weighing options. A quiet demeanor can be interpreted as a sign of disinterest or ignorance when it may be a sign of knowledge and assurance. Loud, forceful speech may be perceived as indicative of knowledge and competence when, in fact, it may be a sign of insecurity and lack of self-assurance.


Implications for the cockpit


Our research related to flight crew language suggested that flight crew language was found to operate on both a propositional level (what is said) and a relational level (what it implies about the speakers’ relationships) and that the most effective crews attend to the relational level. Since studies show that women and men change their conversational style depending on whether they are speaking to those of the same sex or those of the opposite sex, it appears possible to learn desirable language forms and make use of them in the cockpit. Using direct, but courteous language, seems useful in crew coordination. Awareness of power displays is important. Pilot in command responsibilities must never be relinquished in response to loud or aggressive language. Courteous, thoughtful responses and consistent respect are most successful communication tools for a crew. Women’s tendency to check and re-check information and to ask questions is useful in error management. In studying flight training situations, we have found that instructor pilots need to make instructional adjustments to meet women’s needs for more thorough understanding of concepts and maneuvers. Instructor pilots should frequently ask women students if they understand a concept or maneuver. The answers will usually be candid, while male students will nearly always respond that they understand whether or not they do indeed understand.


Final thoughts


Even subtle differences can lead to gross misinterpretation. But, as we gain understanding of conversational style, we can adjust ways of talking and stand a better chance of understanding how others mean what they say. In time, our understanding of how women and men communicate differently should make it less necessary for individuals to adjust their conversational styles.

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Chicago, Illinois

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